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A quarterly magazine of urban affairs, published by the Manhattan Institute, edited by Brian C. Anderson.

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Revolt in Westchester
After a coercive housing settlement, angry voters toss out their county executive.
4 November 2009

Other issues, especially taxes, no doubt ranked high in the minds of Westchester County voters, who last night in a stunning upset threw out incumbent county executive Andy Spano in favor of Republican challenger Rob Astorino by an impressive 58–42 margin. But it didn’t help that county residents felt strong-armed by the federal government and private litigants into a controversial lawsuit settlement on low-income housing that cuts deeply into the county’s tradition of suburban home rule on development issues—or that Spano reacted to voter discontent by suggesting that critics of his housing plans were racist.

Announced in August, the settlement calls for the county over seven years to override local zoning and other rules to force the construction of at least 750 low-income housing units, most to be located in relatively affluent towns. The intention is to increase the number of poorer minorities living in these areas. A federal judge had sided with plaintiffs’ complaints that the county had accepted federal funds but had not lived up to its talk of combating purported “segregation” based on income. (Affluent blacks and other minorities have long been welcome in many of the communities under scrutiny; as the Manhattan Institute’s Howard Husock points out, blacks are at most slightly underrepresented in towns like Scarsdale, Harrison, and Pound Ridge compared with their overall presence in the affluent income brackets typical of those towns.) The Obama administration took credit for arm-twisting the county into going along: “This is historic, because we are going to hold people’s feet to the fire,” said HUD deputy secretary Ron Sims, who added: “It’s time to remove zip codes as a factor in the quality of life in America.”

Read that last line again: it’s pretty startling. To remove zip codes “as a factor in the quality of life” in a nation—so that 10455 (South Bronx), 91731 (El Monte, California), and 48210 (Detroit’s west side) have exactly the same implications for quality of life as 10021 (New York’s Upper East Side), 90210 (Beverly Hills), and 48009 (Birmingham, Michigan)—would require extreme, indeed utopian, ventures into social engineering. It’s certainly a result unachieved by Scandinavian social democracy (in which cities like Stockholm and Copenhagen include both chic, desirable neighborhoods and neighborhoods that are neither), or for that matter by the harder tyrannies of the Left. Even 50 years after Castro’s seizure of power in Cuba, Wikipedia describes the Miramar neighborhood as “an upscale district . . . one of the better parts of Havana.”

What kind of social engineering might be called for to remove zip code as a quality-of-life factor differentiating gritty Yonkers from leafy Yorktown, or crime-plagued Mount Vernon from calm Mamaroneck? The New York Times lays it out:

. . . the county admitted that it has the authority to challenge zoning rules in villages and towns that in many cases implicitly discourage affordable housing by setting minimum lot sizes, discouraging higher-density developments or appropriating vacant property for other purposes. Westchester agreed to “take legal action to compel compliance if municipalities hinder or impede the county” in complying with the agreement.

Not surprisingly, voters across Westchester reacted with alarm as to what this would mean. Aside from the abridgment of home rule, a requirement to accept dense development would probably bring new costs (the introduction of water and sewer systems, school expansion), which would be unlikely to be offset by property tax collections on the new developments. Planning to use a vacant parcel for new softball fields, or preserve it as open space? Sorry, but using town property for purposes that town residents favor could put the supervisors in violation of the settlement. And while much was said about how it would make sense to provide housing options for teachers, cops, and other town workers, along with downsizing retirees and others with local ties, the fact is that towns enter a legal minefield when they attempt to earmark low-income housing for those constituent groups. “Fair housing” litigants have repeatedly sued and sometimes won on the theory that such policies are unfair to other poorer people who might want to give the suburbs a try. And indeed, the settlement “requires the county to market the homes aggressively to black and Hispanic residents of the New York City area”—not just those already working or living in the county.

One question in many voters’ minds was whether incumbent county executive Spano, a Democrat, had in fact fought hard against going along, or had caved too readily to what both sides agreed were unprecedented demands (including $10 million for the plaintiffs and their lawyers). After all, the deal offered Spano certain political advantages, including relatively favorable press in both the New York Times and Gannett’s reliably liberal local Journal News, both of which predictably applauded the settlement on their editorial pages. Spano insisted that the county was yielding against its will. At the same time, he used the quiet weeks leading up to Labor Day to steamroll the plan through a compliant board of county legislators. Challenger Rob Astorino called for a slowdown to examine whether the county had really exhausted its options. Spano replied by playing the race card: he said continued delay in approving the settlement would “make us a symbol of racism.”

As it happens, a lot of Westchesterites—residents of a county known for racial liberalism from way back, and which voted for Barack Obama by a comfortable margin—don’t like being talked to that way. Now Spano, despite a well-financed campaign whose online ads were nearly as ubiquitous as Michael Bloomberg’s, and all the advantages of incumbency and union backing, is packing for his departure. Astorino, just recently written off as a long shot, will be moving into his office. And officials of other local governments have a new reason to fight, not just go along meekly, when the social engineers and lawyers come knocking at their door.

Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, posts as MidWestchester on Twitter, as well as under his own name.

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